Law Day: An opportunity to teach, learn about our legal system

Madison, Wisconsin - April 26, 2023

By Chief Justice Annette Kingsland Ziegler
Wisconsin Supreme Court

Each year, the American Bar Association (ABA) selects a theme for Law Day, May 1. This year’s theme is Cornerstones of Democracy: Civics, Civility, and Collaboration.

I invite all Wisconsinites to celebrate our legal heritage on Law Day this year and throughout the year.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower first established Law Day in 1958 as a day dedicated to the principles of government under law, or the Rule of Law, in the United States. Three years later, Congress designated May 1 as the official date to mark the occasion each year, and the tradition continues.

The ABA and other civic-minded organizations offer outreach and educational materials in support of Law Day and to enhance understanding of the courts and legal process.

Among materials featured by the ABA nationally this year is a 12-minute YouTube video of proceedings from the courtrooms of four Milwaukee County circuit court judges. The combined footage was shot live in 2014 as a training tool for judges and court staff. However, the video also offers a look inside court proceedings and procedures. The judges discuss each step in detail as it happens in the courtroom:

  • Judge Carolina M. Stark explains court procedures, issues an arrest warrant for a defendant who failed to appear, schedules a trial, and re-affirms conditions of a no-contact order.
  • Now-retired Judge Jeffrey A. Kremers explains to defendants the process and purpose of setting bail and what a court must consider during sentencing.
  • Judge Thomas A. McAdams discusses a plea agreement and sentencing decisions with a defendant.
  • Former Circuit Court Judge M. Joseph Donald, who now serves on the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, discusses the jury selection process.

The video is intended for older students, but is helpful to anyone interested in learning more about the courts and our legal system, particularly criminal law. The ABA also offers a range of more general educational materials. These include lesson plans and activities for teachers and students, with ideas and tips on how to talk or write about the Law Day theme.

The Wisconsin court system’s website also lists educational resources for teachers, students, media and the public, as does the Wisconsin State Law Library’s Learning Center. The federal court system offers a range of educational activities, including the “Civil Discourse and Difficult Decisions” initiative, which gives students “real-life experience” with civil discourse and solid decision-making skills.

Although Wisconsin’s appellate courts sometimes grab headlines for high-profile cases, people are more likely to come into contact with courts at the trial court level, if they have contact with the courts at all. In Wisconsin, trial courts are known as the circuit courts, and this is where most cases, civil or criminal, begin and end.

A statistical breakdown of Wisconsin circuit court cases by type and disposition is available through a dashboard on the Wisconsin court system’s website. Statistics can be sorted and analyzed statewide or by county. In 2022, for example, 673,034 new circuit court cases were opened statewide.

Courts serve as a forum for individuals, families, businesses and government to peacefully resolve legal disputes, according to the law and facts presented. Judges don’t go looking for cases, but must decide the cases brought to them, even when they involve difficult or highly controversial issues. This role is vital to a civil society and our form of government.

The ABA encourages all of us to “collaborate to overcome our differences, resolve our disputes, and preserve our democracy and republic.”

Law Day is a great a great opportunity to promote public understanding of our legal system and the work of the courts all year round.

Back to current headlines